Pictured: Morgan pitcher Rob Zirlis (center) is congratulated by teammates Bailey Goss (8) and Garret Garbinski (5) after firing a three-hitter to beat Haddam-Killingworth 2-1. Zirlis retired 20 of the final 22 batters he faced.
By Marc Silvestrini
HIGGANUM — In what could only be described as one of the great pitching duels of the 2021 Connecticut high school baseball season, seventh-seeded Morgan knocked off Haddam-Killingworth, the second-seed in the Shoreline Conference tournament, 2-1 Monday behind the stellar pitching of senior ace Rob Zirlis.
Zirlis allowed a run on two hits, one of which was a wind-blown double, in the first inning and then proceeded to retire 20 of the next 22 H-K batters he faced in pitching a complete game three-hitter. He struck out seven and didn’t walk a single batter.
The tough-luck loser, H-K senior starter Alec Erskine, was nearly as good, allowing one earned run and four hits while also pitching a seven-inning complete game. Erskine fanned 11 and also walked no one.
Trailing 1-0 through three innings, Morgan pushed across the tying and go-ahead runs in the top of the fourth.
Shortstop Garret Garbinski ignited the rally by leading off the inning with a hard single to left. Brady Fritz followed by laying down what appeared to be a perfect sacrifice bunt, but the bunt was so well-placed he managed to beat it out, putting Huskies at first and second with no one out.
Morgan’s third hitter of the inning, Ethan Reemsnyder, then laid down another excellent bunt which Erskine fielded about midway between the mound and third base. His only play was to first base, which moved the runners to second and third with one out.
Dominic Carpenter then hit an infield grounder to knock in Garbinski with the tying run and was safe at first on an errant throw. Bailey Goss followed by hitting a high drive to center, which should have been the inning’s third out but wound up being a sacrifice fly, scoring Fritz with the go-ahead run.
Aside from the two hits in the fourth inning, Erskine only gave up a second-inning single to Goss and a fifth-inning double to Luke Furches.
“I thought Alec had great stuff today, that was about as sharp as he’s been all year,” H-K coach Mark Brookes said. “It’s too bad we didn’t give him any support with our bats.
“We just ran into a real good pitcher today, Zirlis was outstanding,” Brookes added. “Let’s face it, you’re just not going to win too many games when you only get three hits.”
Like all good pitchers tend to do, Zirlis elevated his performance once his teammates gave him the lead. Over the last four innings, the 6-foot-6 right-hander allowed just two base runners, one on a one-out single by Alden Halfinger in the fourth, and the other on an infield error with one out in the seventh.
“I just felt real good today, right from the start,” he said, noting that his fastball and changeup were both working at high levels for him, even if his curveball “still needs some work.”
“My defense really helped me out today, they were just great,” he added.
H-K’s only success against Zirlis came in the first inning when Cavin Burrell hit a high fly to center that got caught in a gust and fell in front of Fritz as Burrell steamed into second with a wind-aided double. Luke DiMauro followed with a rocket to center that got to Fritz so fast that Burrell had to stop and hold at third.
Three pitches later Burrell came home on Zirlis’ only real mistake of the day, a wild pitch that bounced past catcher Ryan Hromadka.
“He’s our ace, he’s our number one guy, and today he pitched like one,” Morgan coach Michael Grant said of Zirlis.
As for his team, Grant said he’s proud of the way the Huskies have hung tough and stayed positive in the wake of their 2-6 start.
“I think it says a lot about this team when you consider we finished our season with a 10-8 record and just beat a legendary coach and a legendary program to stay alive in this tournament,” he said.
While H-K will now await the beginning of the CIAC Class M tournament, the Huskies will swing right back into action on Tuesday when they travel to Deep River to take on Valley Regional in the semifinal round. Valley advanced on Monday with a 3-2 win over Hale-Ray.
“As long as we continue to play like we’ve been playing, I think we can be a pretty scary team,” Zirlis said. “I really think we can beat anybody when we’re playing well.”
M 000 200 0–2 4 2
HK 100 000 0–1 3 1
Batteries: M–Zirlis and Hromadka; HK–Erskine and Glynn. WP: Zirlis; LP: Erskine. 2B: M–Furches; HK–Burrell. Records: Morgan 11-8; H-K 15-6.
Valley Regional 3, Hale-Ray 2
Ryan Ellison doubled in the seventh and scored the winning run with two out when Sam Hutchinson’s hard-hit ground ball eluded the glove of Hale-Ray’s first baseman.
Hutchinson had a game-tying two-run double in the fifth. Valley had just four hits off the Noises’ Matt Lauria, who struck out 11.
“We were able to put our few hits together to get just enough,” Valley coach Brian Drinkard said.
Ellison was the winning pitcher in relief of Brayden Sparaco, who allowed two runs (one earned) on six hits.